Enterprise Technology Management >> Do You Know a Crossover Pro

A new breed of administrator is now vital to today’s enterprise systems management: the crossover specialist who understands both IT and functional sides.

There’s a new leader on campus these days, and though you may not be aware of it yet, he or she may be one of the primary drivers behind your institution’s current or future enterprise technology success. Who is this person? Names and faces may differ, but the profile says: crossover pro.

On many campuses, uncovering the need for such an individual starts with a new administrative system implementation. IT specialists and experts from functional offices find themselves sitting together in the same room, learning the ins and outs of the new administrative technology environment. They gather around tables, working through the tough details of how to express the institution’s business practices in terms of the new software. Although they bring different strengths to the task, both sides usually begin to experience the same epiphany around the same time: They realize they need to unite the technical and the functional perspectives if they are ever going to make a success of the project.

Crossing IT and functional lines. Certainly, some highly technical matters, like network security and the internals of database management, will always be left in the hands of specialists. Conversely, not everyone with a strong technical bent has the time or inclination to master the whys and wherefores of financial aid, student billing, or fundraising. But a middle ground is fast emerging between the technical and functional sides of the house. It d'esn’t have a widely accepted name yet (“tech-func” and “crossover” are in the running). But senior-level administrators are beginning to recognize that IT people who know what’s under the hood of the software and who also truly understand the business of a particular office, fit into a unique category. When these technical specialists also have the personal skills to work as partners with that office, they make a crucial contribution that is becoming more and more essential in these days of complex enterprise system implantations and management.

How did they get there? Where do crossover IT people get their functional knowledge? Often, they get it from years or decades of experience. The person who wrote the original legacy system, and who used to be occupied in patching and extending that programming code, is now bringing that knowledge to bear on using the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that has replaced the old administrative technology environment. Newer members of the IT staff may have come in with an enterprise orientation already. They may be lucky enough to get their chance to learn the institution’s operations inside and out during the conversion to a new system.

Much rarer is the person who actually has career experience in both technical and functional areas. Nadine Stern is the CIO at the College of New Jersey, where she is responsible for overseeing both information technology and student services. This unusual combination is due to her personal history: After a earning a Masters of Education degree and starting her career in advising and career services, Stern was recruited by an IT director who said he could teach anybody COBOL in two or three months. The hard part, he said, was finding someone who combined an understanding of the functionality, the human interface, and the focus on service. Then, after decades of running traditional IT shops, Stern was hired as a traditional IT manager at the College of New Jersey, but also was asked to take on the added responsibility for student services. “It was pulling my whole career into a circle,” she says.

The collaborative spirit. Technical-functional capability is as much an attitude as it is a skill set. It means being willing to listen carefully, explain patiently, and really collaborate—something that (for some individuals, rightly proud of their store of professional knowledge) may be hard to do. This attitude is fostered by excellent IT management, which stresses the service role of the IT department in supporting the other areas of the campus. In fact, it turns out that crossover tech people often work for CIOs who “walk the walk” well and set a good example for them by collaborating well in their own relationships across campus. IT management can also encourage collaborative skills simply by including functional managers in the process of evaluating and rewarding IT personnel.

This collaborative approach is also intimately tied to successful attitudes toward an institution’s information systems management, on the part of its top-level administration. An institution whose goal is to break out of silos and effectively integrate business information and processes across the campus will naturally foster crossover between the technical and functional campus communities.

Projects drive crossover skills. In fact, effective ERP project managers see a blending of the technical and the functional as a natural outcome of their work. Dr. Barbara White is one such manager; she led a complex system migration at Utah State University before recently moving to the University of Georgia as CIO and associate provost.

“What these system migrations do in terms of the campus,” says White, “is to engage people to think outside of the silo mentality and move toward an enterprise view. These migrations clearly require people to come together across boundaries. This requires the technical side to listen and provide technical solutions, in concert with the need for the functional folks to be user-focused.”

Utah State also employed an outside party, SunGard Collegis (www.sungardcollegis.com), as the implementation partner, and White thinks that the expertise and experience contributed by the implementation partner assisted in facilitating the blending process. “The whole purpose is to bring the colleagues to the table,” White says. “Having somebody from outside the institution, helping us, brought a different perspective to the problem-solving process and the need to bring issues to resolution on behalf of the institution, rather than the individual unit. This is critical for any ERP system migration. Because of this, at Utah State colleagues were willing to engage in the process even though we had never been through anything of this scale.”

Passing the torch. The leader of the SAP implementation currently underway at the University of Kentucky comes directly from the functional side, and used her own crossover experience to extend the same advantage to others. Besides being director of the Integrated Resources Management System Project, Phyllis Nash is also professor of Behavioral Sciences in the College of Medicine. “We have taken programmers and developers—people who were in technical roles—and, for the length of the ERP project, reassigned them in truly functional roles. They are not doing development, not writing code; they are learning about business processes, so that they can help with the setup of the system.” These team members, who Nash wittily refers to as “those folks formerly known as technical,” are now sitting side-by-side with functional staff, doing the same things that they are, and seeing campus life through the same lens.

From people, to structures. In fact, very large and complex institutions like the University of Kentucky and others have begun to develop entirely new structures to deal with the blurring of traditional lines between the technical and the functional. Duke University (NC) has created a unit that sits between the functional user areas and the technical IT organization, and specifically provides support for SAP (www.sap.com) in the areas of finance, human resources, payroll, and procurement. The people who staff this unit have varied backgrounds, says Todd Orr, assistant VP, Administrative Systems & Support. While many are functional people who picked up configuration skills during the implementation project, others came from a pure IT background. “You need resources who have a good understanding of how SAP works and what it can do and not do, and who can make changes to an application up to a point,” says Orr. “But they also have to have the background to talk to the functional people without getting too wrapped up in the details of how SAP d'es things under the covers.”

There’s no doubt that finding technical and functional excellence in a single person is indeed a challenge. Institutions that possess that balance in a staff member have good reason to be proud and are wise to protect and preserve that asset.

Finding special people. Through Educause’s CIO Constituent Group, we asked IT managers and functional managers to identify exceptional crossover support staff, and tell us what makes them stand out. We also asked some of these star performers to describe how they work. The profiles that follow are selected from a large number of responses; clearly, institutions are now placing a high value on this kind of double talent. Why not let these profiles serve as inspiration to find your own crossover pros?

Rita Malick Bucknell University (PA) Syst. Integ., Information Systems and Resources Supports: Admissions, Registrar, Residential Life Primary app: SCT Banner (www.sct.com)

According to Bucknell Registrar Robert Dunkerly, “Rita knows a lot more about what we do and how we do it than most people looking at the operation from the outside. She wrote the legacy system, which was very customized. She’s got that ‘interior’ knowledge that helps us to clarify when we get an idea, or when somebody wants something new. Rita asks us questions and sometimes saves us from shooting ourselves in the foot. She knows not only our piece of the puzzle, but also admissions and the other areas that constantly interact in one large database. She understands even when a question is imperfectly phrased. She knows how to translate it into Bucknellese.”

Rita, how did you build your functional knowledge? “I started to bond with Admissions during the implementation of Banner in 1995. I participated in all aspects—operational analysis, breaking down their processes, understanding what they did or were used to doing—taking functional training with SCT. I was the IT person who was put on the team, and I felt it was important to attend all the meetings.”

What about your background in the Registrar’s Office? “That’s a longer history. I was a student here and worked in the Registrar’s Office. Staffers there initiated me into what they did, and being a student helped me understand what they were doing from the customer’s point of view.”

Besides technical skills, what is important in selecting a person for a job like yours? “People skills. Make sure that he or she can interact with the offices and gain that bond or trust. You should meet with the office frequently and respond to their questions and needs in a timely fashion. Learn about the functional side; the application.”

Michelle Arth Georgia Perimeter College Asst. Dir., Enterprise Information Systems Supports: HR, and Finance-related offices Primary app: PeopleSoft (www.peoplesoft.com)

Bruce Briggs, Associate VP and CIO of Georgia Perimeter, has a bird’s eye view of Michelle’s crossover talents: “PeopleSoft is supported out of a central site for all schools in the Georgia system, so our campus technical support people are allowed to focus primarily on the customer. Michelle d'es that, and she is a breath of fresh air to work with. Michelle is smart enough to figure out what the users are trying to accomplish; she puts the focus on the customer first—the right way to do it. When we converted to version 8.1.x, she was good at getting right in there and straightening out any glitches so that the clients and the staff didn’t see any problems. No one missed a paycheck.”

And according to Linda Corva, director of Accounting, “As we converted, she went to every technical and user training [session] with us, so she could understand both our side and hers. She d'es take the time to learn what we do and understand what we are trying to achieve; she d'esn’t just tell us what table it’s in. Style of communication is more important to me than technical knowledge. I feel like we can work through most anything, because she will work with us. She d'esn’t just say, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ With the new systems now, you have to have that [commitment to work together]. I don’t know how people do it without others who are willing to understand the functional side.”

Tod Maki St. Norbert College (WI) Asst. Dir., Computer Svcs. Supports: Functional areas Primary app: SCT Banner

John Beck, Director, Computer Services, has this to say about Tod Maki: “Tod is spearheading our migration project to a new ERP system (SunGard’s SCT Banner). Being a reasonably small college (about 2,100 students), we have an unreasonably small staff, so it has been a great benefit for us that Tod understands the operations of the administrative functional areas, in addition to the operations of the software.”

Patricia Wolfe-Thornton, administrative secretary to the Dean of Admission, adds: “Ask him a question once, twice, three times, and every time he will patiently answer as though it’s the first time the question was posed to him. He will question you right back until you know he understands what you need accomplished and why. He guides with a firm but non-intrusive hand. We are very fortunate to have his technical knowledge, but even more so, to have someone who works to understand how our office (as well as all of the other offices on campus) functions.”

Jill Vannella Georgian Court University (NJ) Database/Systems Specialist Supports: Registrar, Bursar, Admissions, Financial Aid, Institutional Advancement Primary app: SCT PowerCAMPUS

To Cindy Lisowski, director of Information for Institutional Advancement, “‘Database Specialist’ sounds ominous to those of us who are on the fringes of the informational technology world. We know our ‘fields’—admissions, registrar, financial aid, finance, and advancement. But do we necessarily know the real ins and outs of the systems with which we’re dealing? No; and, gratefully, we don’t have to, because we have someone like Jill Vannella ’86, our very own ‘database specialist.’ If she simply understood the hardware and software, she would be very little help to us. Jill not only knows the intricacies of the system, she knows the intricacies of each of our offices. To be effective in her position, she has to.”

According to registrar Jill A. Riley, “When I first started at GCU, Jill had just completed a full software conversion. She worked tirelessly with a new registrar, staff members, and system to make the conversion a success. She so immersed herself in the records arena that we have named her an ‘honorary’ member of our staff. Jill’s thorough knowledge of our office process allows her to anticipate how changes/modifications in software functionality may impact the office.”

Ronald Wagner Lehigh University (PA) Senior Project Specialist, Enterprise Systems Implementation Supports: Registrar Primary app: SCT Banner

Says Registrar Bruce Correll, “Let’s say we’re trying to make a modification to a baseline form: Ron can tell us in exact detail what the code d'es and what he can make it do. For example, we have a course that students can repeat to improve their grade. The baseline system did not include the option that we needed to follow faculty policy, so Ron came up with a different notation for the course. The fact that Ron understood it so well, and had been working with us functionally, made all the difference in the world. He knew what the faculty was trying to get at.”

Ron, how did you learn about what the registrar’s office d'es? “[I learned] over time, meeting with the staff in the registrar’s office on a regular basis to make sure that I understand what they do. A lot of people don’t realize how much there is to the operation of that office. Every time you turn around, demands are being made on the registrar.”

What is your style of working with the Registrar’s Office? “Some problem will be found, and rather than the registrar or me going off on a tangent by ourselves, we work on it together. That way, we solve problems that might have been overlooked. In the long run, that makes it better for both of us.”

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